RICHMOND, Va. -- The lead attorney suing the Virginia Employment Commission on behalf of five plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit applauded Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive directive announcement on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Gov. Ralph Northam directed the Virginia Unemployment Commission to invest $20 million to expand the agency's ability to process unemployment insurance claims.
The executive directive will require the agency to add 300 new adjudication staffers, make technology upgrades and modernize Virginia's unemployment insurance system by October 1, 2021.
“I think it’s a big step forward,” said Legal Aide Justice Center attorney Pat Levy-Lavelle. “The time has come for cases to be resolved more quickly.”
In April, Levy-Lavelle and a handful of organizations filed a class-action lawsuit against the VEC alleging “gross failures" to provide needed help as required by law amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Also on Tuesday, the VEC and Levy-Lavelle met with Virginia Eastern District Court District Judge Henry E. Hudson to begin settlement discussions. But in November, the attorney sent Gov. Northam’s office a letter detailing how other states have remedied the delays in processing unemployment claims.
“The main point is that we’ve gotten to this day, and I don’t want to take away from that,” Levy-Levelle stated. “Clearly we’ve been pushing these issues for a while, members of the General Assembly have been pushing for these issues for a while.”
Dr. Megan Healy, Northam’s Chief Workforce Advisor, said Virginia’s robust economy prior to the pandemic didn’t require investment into the state’s unemployment states like other states.
Virginia ranks 51st out of 53 states and territories for the amount of federal funding it receives relative to what Virginia businesses pay in taxes. The problem was hidden by years of low unemployment and a consistently strong economy, and the pandemic has highlighted this reality, according to a press release.
“We give almost the most back in the percentage of their trust back to the federal government to be distributed to other states, that’s why we are behind other states,” Dr. Healy explained. “That money could be used for staffing or upgrading our systems.”
Healy said more than 84% of Virginians who were eligible for their benefits were paid within 21 days, which is the sixth-fastest in the nation. It’s the cases with issues that are taking the longest to resolve.
Approximately 70,000 cases are still waiting for adjudication.
The CBS 6 Problem Solvers uncovered documents revealing VEC leadership knew their decades’ old benefits system needed an upgrade in 2010.
“The announcement is good news for Virginians, but why did it take until May?” CBS 6’s Brendan King asked Dr. Healy.
“We are understaffed and an under-resourced agency. We had 10 years of claims in the first 10 months. Close to almost now 1.6 million Virginians - that’s one out of three workers entered our system that we weren’t ready for. We’ve not made the investments in the past year as well and we added extra types of unemployment insurance,” Healy responded.
Levy-Lavelle said Judge Hudson should issue an enforceable order on Virginia to ensure the state performs the changes at the VEC as promised.